Leaving the cinema this week after watching Her, the new Spike Jonze film, three strong urges came over me, one after the other. The first was to walk back in and watch the very next session of the film. I’d been so overwhelmed by the sophistication of what Jonze had made I felt compelled to immerse myself in that wonderful world again.

Jonze is already well known among film-lovers, for quirky-surrealist collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman,Being John Malkovitch (1999) andAdaptation (2002), and for his bold adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s seminal children’s bookWhere the Wild Things Are (2009). I love all these films, but Her sees Jonze stamp out new territory as an auteur, in my view, perhaps facilitated by the level of control afforded by being both screenwriter and director.

Now, my strong positive reaction to the film could just be my resonance with the film’s plot – a lonely writer (Theodore Twombly – Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with his newly purchased operating system (Samantha – Scarlett Johansson) finding new insight into himself along the way. Sounds exactly how I’d like to, figuratively, spend the next year. But the warm critical reception and growing list of award nominations and wins suggest there’s probably a bit more going on here than me projecting my personal issues.

Before we get into what I think the film is really about, or what it meant for me – and the other two urges I had following the film – three quick things Jonze explores in this film that interested me most on this first viewing:

1. The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Jonze portrays a benevolent evolution of AI, with the capacity to learn from experience seeing them outgrow humanity, rather than coming into direct conflict with us. I would prefer this version to being turned into a human battery and kept subjugated via an elaborate simulation, as portrayed in the Matrix Trilogywhich, scarily, may already be occurring – or other more heavily dystopian models, like those in Terminator, Cloud Atlas (read the book), and Blade Runner.

2. The commodification of human experience

In Her, the AIs begin as something humans purchase to fill a need, ostensibly a juiced up operating system playing personal assistant for overly busy people. The film expands the theme with Twombly being employed as a writer of hand-written letters for other people. This outsources the effort involved in expressing emotion to others, and arguably the reality of the actual emotion, into something resembling Rifkin’s conception of hyper-capitalism. My film companion pointed me towards a disturbing modern day parallel in Japan’sRent-a-Family industry, where people pay actors to impersonate family members.

3. The relationship between music and memory

One of the most touching moments in the film for me is when Samantha creates a piece of music to be a memory for her and Twombly – given she doesn’t have a body to create physical experiences with. This extrapolation of the currently understood relationship between music and memory, including for therapy, is quite romantic. Twombly and Samantha also write soppy songs together on a ukulele – very cute.

There are plenty of other ways to read the film: from afeminist or ablist perspective, exploring that social stigmatisation of people in ‘different’ relationships, the hipster vision ofhow we’ll live in the future, or the superlative use of colour. (Interestingly, Jonze’s former collaborator, Andy Kaufman, went on to write the screenplay for the 2004 Michael Gondry film Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, which, like Her, is also a mildly dystopian science fiction film exploring the nature of memory and human relationships thatuses colour as a central narrative device)

At its core, however, Her is about the interactions between ourselves, technology and other people.

Samantha and the other AIs evolve quickly from operating system to personal assistant to valued companion. There are obvious parallels to be drawn to our current relationship with technology, like the near-symbiotic bond some of us have with our mobile phones. In our post-film conversation my companion directed me to thesechild-tracking wristbands, which allow parents to monitor and schedule their child’s every move – a scary new level of helicopter parenting.

Two of the most dystopian scenes in the film involve Twombly walking along a street or promenade, the camera’s gaze showing clearly that the other people, while physically within the same space as Twombly, are actually consciously occupying an internal space through a connection to their own AI. The contrast between the two scenes, and the corresponding warning regarding the potential consequences of over-dependence on technology, come via whether Twombly himself is connected to Samantha at the time.

My reaction to this technological dystopia probably led to the second urge I had on leaving the cinema, which was to throw my phone in the bin. I didn’t do that, either.

The irony in the film is that it takes a technological being, in the form of Samantha, to give value to human experience, by her questioning, curiosity and self-doubt. Samantha’s says to Twombly that memories are nothing more that stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Her sense of marvel as she says it reminded me of Roy Batty’s stunning monologue at the end of Blade Runner, where the android recollects everything he has seen in his cruelly predetermined lifetime.

In both these films – and texts like Frankensteinthe constructs’ quest for humanity brings focus to what the rest of us largely take for granted. In Her we are focussed more squarely on human interactivity than the nature of life itself, and in particular the importance of the connection we have to the moment we are in right now.  This, actually, was the third urge – to be totally present where I was right then, with the person I was with.

While the artifice of a human dating an operating system creates an allegory of our relationship to technology, for me Jonze’s primary concern is to use the artifice as metaphor for examining loss and growth at the end of a major relationship. (Check out the reaction to the film by a bunch of Jonze’s friends and peers in this wonderful 15 minute documentary, Her: Love in the Modern Age.)

Twombly’s virtual relationship with Samantha is juxtaposed with his in-real-life encounters with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), his friend (Amy Adams) and a blind date (Olivia Wilde). It’s Theodore’s varying levels of interaction with these four women (and one other) that drive both the plot and Twombly’s emotional arc. Until the final Act, Twombly remains largely a passive agent in his emotional relationships with women, driven by an inability to express himself – emotionally, verbally or otherwise. As a functional introvert whose only remnant shyness from childhood – frustratingly – is in relation to relationships, I could relate.

In contrast, unlike his relationship to the other women in the film, Twombly’s relationship with his ex-wife is presented almost entirely technology free, removing the barriers which other aspects of the film suggest many of us are placing between ourselves and happiness. Every other relationship he has with a woman in the film is facilitated by technology.

The overarching impression the film left me with is to lift my head from the artifices – technological or otherwise – which disconnect me, either from myself, from experience, or from the people around me. Technology can facilitate the relationship between people, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think it will become a meaningful substitute.

This struck me later in the evening as my companion and I sat on a train platform bench, our eyes on the screen of my phone. As she scrolled through the list of our mutual friends, I discovered new intimacy in someone else’s finger drawing down across my phone. Hesitantly, I reached out and, with her finger just millimetres away, flicked the screen down once too.

Mark Riboldi

Mark is currently working on a novel contains VR (and aliens and wormholes) but is of course about something else entirely. He’s online at markriboldi.com

More by Mark Riboldi ›

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  1. I also really enjoyed Her, Mark. Phoenix is fantastic, and Jonze succeeds as usual in creating such a bizarre and beautiful world.

    I was talking to someone about this film and I called it science fiction. They said that they weren’t very interested in the genre because it almost always totally finesses the most interesting and difficult scientific questions they claim to be about.

    So if Her claims to be about AI, then it is several orders of magnigute away from realistic in many of the ideas it portrays e.g. the re-creation of Alan Watts from his writings and recordings. We are a long, long way from anything like Samantha.

    I then realised that only a tiny fraction of science fiction is actually concerned with the scientific questions that appear central to them. Those questions and ideas are really just cover for the exploration of more general issues, like our relationships to one another and society.And I think Jonze does that beautifully with Her.


  2. Thanks for this beautiful review, your thoughts and links. And last sentence. Sigh. I was put off seeing Her by some lukewarm review (despite loving Jonze and especially Phoenix) so I will def be finding time for it after reading your words.

  3. Cheers Jane – enjoy it!

    Hammertime, I agree with how your conceptions of science fiction. It seems to me the visions of the future presented are usually projected evolutions from where we are at a particular point in time, used as a vehicle to examine and teach us something about where we are now. All the best science fiction does that, in my view, and the focus is rarely on justifying the science of the technology presented. Though, again, the good stuff is believable enough to be convincing.

    By the way, other interesting takes on AI recently can be seen in the TV series Caprica (even just watch the pilot) or the first episode of the new British series Black Mirror. Both these posit that something resembling a “personality” can be constructed via compiling our recorded interactions – social media, email, phone messages, etc. Fascinating stuff.


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